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Labour, Land and Capital: From Slavery to Free Labour in Asante, 1807-1956

Author(s):Austin, Gareth
Reviewer(s):Nunn, Nathan

Published by EH.NET (August 2006)

Gareth Austin, Labour, Land and Capital: From Slavery to Free Labour in Asante, 1807-1956. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005. xxiv + 589 pp. $75 (hardcover), ISBN: 1-58046-161-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Nathan Nunn, Department of Economics, University of British Columbia.

In recent years, Africa’s underdevelopment has been of growing concern for policy makers, not to mention for those living within Africa. Despite this, research on Africa remains relatively neglected by development economists. Instead, research has tended to focus on India and China. Even more neglected is research on the relationship between Africa’s pre-colonial and colonial history and post-colonial economic development. Gareth Austin’s book fills this void by providing a detailed analysis of the history of rural Ghana’s economy between 1807 and 1956. This book is a valuable addition to this area of research.

The book’s twenty chapters are organized into seven parts. Part I (chapters 1 to 4) describes the conceptual framework and historical context. Part II (chapters 5 to 7) discusses land tenure, labor institutions, and credit and capital arrangements. Part III (chapters 8 to 10) analyzes the political economy of slavery and pawning, the importance of gender and kinship for production, and the implications these had for welfare and conflict. Part IV (chapters 11 to 13) examines the economy’s transition from slavery to cash-crop farming, describing in detail the British abolition of slavery and the subsequent use of coerced labor. Parts V and VI (chapters 14 to 19) examine factor markets in the first half of the twentieth century, during a time when coerced labor was on the decline. The final part of the book is chapter 20, where the author discusses his conclusions.

The book seems to be targeted more to historians than to economic historians or economists. This is illustrated by the fact that in the introduction the author takes considerable effort to define basic concepts such as “markets,” “factor markets,” “property rights,” and “economic rents.” Despite this economists and economic historians will still be interested in many parts of the book. The chapters that are likely of the most interest to economists, particularly development and trade economists, are chapters 8 and 13.

In chapter 8, Austin tests whether slavery in Asante was rational. That is, whether it was a profit maximizing response to a scarcity of labor relative to land. Austin does this by comparing the costs of free labor to slave labor using data that he assembles in chapter 6. As the author notes, the analysis of this chapter is the first empirical comparison of the costs of free labor and slave labor in a pre-colonial African society.

In chapter 13, Austin examines whether the ending of Asante slavery can be explained by the rapid specialization in cocoa farming at the time. Unlike previous studies that test for the effect of specialization of production on domestic institutions, Austin finds that economic specialization did not affect the institution of slavery within Asante. He concludes that the institutional changes were exogenous to the economic changes occurring at the time. This chapter adds valuable evidence to our knowledge of the effect of comparative advantage and specialization of production on domestic institutions.

Overall, the book provides a rich, well thought out, and well written analysis of the history of rural Ghana’s economy between 1807 and 1956.

Nathan Nunn’s publications include “Historical Legacies: A Model Linking Africa’s Past to its Current Underdevelopment,” Journal of Development Economics (forthcoming).

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII